A “Progressive” Analysis of Higher Education’s Problems

This journalist’s solution would make matters much worse.

There have been quite a few books written incorporating the “ivory tower” shorthand for American higher education. The latest is by Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch—After the Ivory Tower Falls. 

That interesting title caught my eye. I have been arguing for many years that higher education is an overinflated bubble that’s due to burst or at least deflate. What does this author have to say about the prospects for American higher education?

As I investigated further, I found that the book has been recommended by people with deep leftist sympathies, including Duke history professor Nancy MacLean and Democratic Congressman Ro Khanna. But you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover (or, in this instance, its back cover), so I acquired a copy and dove in. What would a writer with “progressive” priors say about the problems with higher education? Would Bunch provide any useful insights?

The problem is that Bunch gets the causality all wrong.Sadly, the answer is “no.” Bunch understands that higher education performs badly for many Americans. He is distressed that so many students accumulate enormous college debts only to end up working in jobs that don’t pay well enough for them to repay what they owe. He laments that most students today seem to look at college as just a stepping stone to a lucrative career. He’s bothered by credential inflation that now requires college or even graduate degrees for work that people could learn to do with just some basic training. I’m bothered by the same things.

The problem is that Bunch gets the causality all wrong. In his leftist view, everything is the fault of evil Republican politicians, greedy Wall Streeters, and avaricious businessmen. Bunch’s contempt for people he sees as promoting heartless capitalism with dark money drips from the pages. He never considers the possibility that what has gone wrong in higher education might have something to do with the federal policy of subsidizing it. And, as you might have surmised, his solution is for government to make it free.

To sum up Bunch’s argument, the U.S. should make universal postsecondary education a “public good.” By that, he means an entitlement for everyone. (In the same vein, he wants a “single-payer” healthcare system.) After World War II, Bunch maintains, the nation was on the verge of doing just that but made the mistake of choosing to fund students (through loans and grants) rather than institutions (so they would not have to charge tuition).

He writes, “Today, the principle of universal higher education demands thinking outside the confining box of our current web of institutions and programs. Instead, the U.S. body politic should agree that government has an obligation to help young Americans navigate the perilous straits that run between high school and entering adulthood, with an ambitious ‘new deal’ that offers tuition- and debt-free traditional university education to those who desire one, but different kinds of opportunities … for those seeking a different path.”

One more thing—Bunch also advocates universal national service to “help” young people.

How does Bunch make his case? Not through anything resembling a cost/benefit analysis that includes the impact on incentives of his proposal and its unintended consequences. Rather, he proceeds through a number of anecdotes that show nice people hurting as a result of our not having turned higher education into an entitlement, as well as bad people doing the things that have brought about their misery.

Bunch shows nice people hurting as a result of our not having turned higher education into an entitlement.One of Bunch’s nice people is Sean Kitchen, who felt that “college was forced on [him],” accumulated a lot of debt, couldn’t pay off his loans, and became an organizer of Occupy Wall Street (but in Philadelphia). Kitchen rails against the “obscene wealth” of the one percent and the stagnation of the 99 percent. Naturally, he was drawn to Senator Bernie Sanders in 2016 and now hopes for relief from his debts.

Bunch also went to Kenyon College in Ohio to do some interviews. He met with Jeanne Griggs, who runs the school’s writing center. Focusing on the disconnect between most of the conservatives in the area and the right-thinking people at the college, she said, “The people vote the way they do because they haven’t been able to get the education they need to do critical thinking.” That is clearly Bunch’s view, as well—those reactionaries who don’t want the Sanders agenda just aren’t well-educated.

Such voters have presumably been brainwashed into agreeing with what Bunch repeatedly calls “the Republican war on education.” One of his villains is former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who reduced state appropriations for the university system. Bunch attributes that move entirely to Walker’s desire to win votes from all those poorly educated, resentful folks who aren’t able to see the great social value in heavily subsidized university education. Could it possibly be that Wisconsin had other budgetary priorities, and saving funds on the university system made sense? Bunch never entertains that notion, and he overlooks the fact that “blue” states have also decreased appropriations and increased tuition in their state universities.

Bunch admits that he had some hopes for Missouri’s rather populist Republican Senator Josh Hawley. But instead of supporting Bunch’s preferred reforms, Hawley advocated a requirement that colleges and universities that accept federal student aid money pay some of it back if students default. Bunch never addresses the merits of that proposal, which are strong, simply saying that it was “geared toward scoring cheap political points.” That’s typical of the author. He never engages with contrary arguments but dismisses them as badly motivated.

He does the same thing with regard to his vision of compulsory national service. After noting that the Cato Institute published a paper on that idea, finding a great many flaws in it, Bunch merely says that such opposition will have to be overcome. Why it should be overcome, he never bothers to say.

Before the government stepped in to make college more “available,” the system worked efficiently.Oddly enough, Bunch’s family story, which he recounts at the beginning of the book, includes a for-profit college that operated successfully before the days of federal intrusion. His grandmother ran Midstate College in Peoria, IL, earning money on the tuitions paid by “upwardly mobile girls.” She had to offer sufficient educational value to entice young women from rural America to pay the school’s tuition. Bunch tells that story with pride, as well he should. Unfortunately, it doesn’t occur to him that American colleges worked so well in those days precisely because students had to carefully weigh the costs (borne by themselves and their families) against the benefits.

Before the federal government stepped in to make college “available” to all with low-cost financing, the system worked just as efficiently as other service markets. Only after that policy blunder could schools charge higher and higher tuitions, could students build up enormous debt loads, could schools admit hordes of poorly prepared and weakly motivated students, and were there so many college grads in the workforce that employers could screen out those who had only high-school credentials. The kinds of sob stories Bunch tells didn’t exist.

He’s right that the college bubble has done great damage to the country. His solution, however, will only compound the damage.

College would be “free” to students, but the burden on taxpayers would rise greatly since there would be little reason for institutions to control costs. Moreover, the quality of education would erode. With the federal government controlling the purse strings, the curriculum would be further politicized—an issue Bunch brushes off as nothing but conservative political opportunism—and student motivation would decline, since they would have no personal stake in their free credentials.

Bunch is right in saying that there should be non-college options for students who are not inclined towards serious academic studies, but free training programs won’t provide good value for the money spent. In fact, such educational alternatives already abound on the market. Turning them into entitlements funded by tax money will short-circuit their development.

After the Ivory Tower Falls was obviously written to get nods from leftist readers, not to convince non-leftists. Even so, the author’s failure to see that our higher-education problems stem from the government’s ill-considered meddling, and his call for far more of that to solve those problems, is amazing. It’s the kind of book you get when a true believer writes with his ideological blinders firmly in place.

George Leef is director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.